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Timeline: Not Musical

U.S. Public Domain
This portrait from 1630 depicts a family making music together. This scene is rare in our modern Western society where many people believe that they are "not musical".

Here's another favorite episode from the vault...

Originally aired January 8, 2018 

It was her first piano lesson with me, but she wasn’t new to the instrument. She had learned from YouTube tutorials and her own explorations to play some of her favorite songs. After a good first lesson her mother came over and said, “She is very talented”. I smiled and agreed. Then her mother said, “It’s surprising to me because I’m not musical at all.”


Credit U.S. - Public Domain
Not musical, is there such a thing?

A few years back I was working with a young playwright. He was writing a brazen, funny new work about an all-female punk rock band set in the early days of the Reagan era. He wanted to explore what the band would sound like and possibly write a couple of original songs. He had some lyrical ideas, so we pulled out the electric guitar and started working on some guitar riffs and punk rock licks. His eyes grew wide as I started to sing his words on top of what we were playing. He exclaimed, “Is that all there is to it?” He said he was always mystified about the song writing process because he wasn’t musical at all. Then in the next breath he began to sing along; a strong baritone voice singing his words to the melody we were writing together. Yet, he said he wasn’t musical.

Not everyone will sing like Renee Fleming or play like YoYo Ma, but I challenge those who say they are not musical. However, I do understand why they say it. In Western culture we have a small set of individuals who create music (we call them composers) and a slightly larger group who play it (musicians) and everyone else is just a consumer. We all but deify long dead music creators and we fill stadiums and concert halls just to get close to our favorite performers.

There’s a contradiction here as well, because we are surrounded by music all the time. Every television and radio program has to have its own theme music. We have more streaming services and formats then any individual could ever use. Every grocery store and shopping mall has music playing. We can’t even ride an elevator without hearing music. It’s everywhere and no one is expected to have special training to hear it or experience it, yet so many of us think we aren’t musical!

In the book The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It, science writer Philip Ball points to musicality as a core human trait. Every culture has its own form of musical expression. Every child experiences and creates music in their own way. Music can be a doorway to a lifetime of enriching expression. We all possess amazing skill to listen and discern musical ideas. At the end of the first chapter of his book Philip Ball writes, “But what usually happens instead? Children stop singing and dancing, they get embarrassed about their piano lessons… and frustrated that they don’t sound like the stars on MTV. As adults, they deny that they possess having any musicality…. They jokingly attribute themselves the rare clinical condition of tone-deafness. They probably no not know that there are cultures in the world where to say ‘I’m not musical’ would be meaningless, akin to saying ‘I’m not alive’”.

You are alive, therefore, you are musical.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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